Drivers and barriers to uptake of early learning and childcare among two year olds

Research commissioned from Ipsos MORI to examine factors affecting the uptake of free early learning and childcare (ELC) for two-year-olds.

3 Setting the context

3.1 This chapter provides context for the findings of the research with parents by describing the different ways in which ELC is being promoted and delivered across local authorities. It also covers the drivers and barriers to increasing uptake of free ELC for eligible 2 year olds from the perspective of professionals involved in its implementation and delivery.

Is uptake higher than estimated?

3.2 Estimates provided by the local authority staff interviewed suggest uptake could be higher than indicated by the annual census data taken in September 2016. The Scottish Government was aware of issues with the data collection methodology prior to this research being commissioned and is addressing this separately through a data transformation project which is seeking to ensure data capture reflects more widely the significant policy changes and meets user need.

3.3 If actual uptake is close to the local authority estimates, then there is less of a problem than was thought. Nonetheless, there is considerable scope (at least in many areas) to increase uptake still further and lessons learned about the drivers and barriers remain valuable.

Delivery of the provision

3.4 There was considerable variation in the way in which free ELC was being delivered across different local authorities. Local authority nurseries were the main provider in all areas but the extent to which private nurseries, third sector organisations and childminders were also involved in delivery varied. The use of childminders had been limited to date but was mentioned frequently as an option which authorities were looking to explore further. Stakeholders saw particular benefits in using childminders for eligible two year olds living in rural areas.

3.5 The degree of flexibility of the provision also varied across the authorities. In some, the 'traditional' model of free ELC provision (five three-hour sessions per week, either in the morning or afternoon, during term-time) was the only or main option available. Other authorities, however, were able to offer greater flexibility by giving parents the option of condensing the provision into, say, two full days, by offering provision during school holidays or by allowing parents to pay to top up their hours.

3.6 One important factor affecting delivery in each authority was the level of local, self-funded ELC provision for two year olds which had existed prior to the implementation of free ELC nationally. When free ELC for eligible 2 year olds was introduced, some local authorities had sufficient existing provision to accommodate all placements in the first year - while others had very little or no previous provision and needed more significant changes and expansion of provision in terms of sourcing appropriate providers, undertaking building works and training staff.

How is ELC promoted?


3.7 Free ELC for eligible 2 year olds was promoted by professionals, through advertising and through word of mouth. While practice varied by authority, health visitors were the main professional group promoting free ELC in all areas. Sometimes this would be through contacts they had with families who were considered more vulnerable and were having visits outside the core visiting schedule. In other cases, it was mentioned at the 27-30 month developmental check and, in one authority, letters were sent to all parents alongside the 27-30 questionnaire. It was acknowledged, however, that health visitors had many demands on their time and that there would always be some who were doing more to promote it than others. Other professionals involved in promotion included: DWP staff working in Job Centre Plus offices, social workers, early years workers, staff working in play initiatives, nursery staff and those involved in local groups such as Bookbug. One authority had also involved housing association staff in promotion as they are a group of professionals who have contact with many of the eligible families.


3.8 The Scottish Government produced posters to advertise the provision. In addition to these, local authorities used their own modes of advertising. In some cases, this involved designing their own posters or leaflets which allowed them to put their own stamp on the way in which free ELC was marketed and meant they could include details of local providers. In others, adverts were placed in local newspapers or newsletters which were distributed to all households. Facebook had also been used to try to increase awareness and, in one local authority, banners were placed on refuse vehicles (as they were identified as being the one vehicle that would be in every street).

Word of mouth

3.9 Stakeholders also highlighted the importance of word of mouth, particularly when a parent has seen the benefits of ELC in their own child. As such, they felt it was important that both parents and nursery staff were encouraged pass on their experience of the benefits to others.

What works well in the promotion of ELC?

Importance of personal contact

3.10 The overriding message from stakeholders was the importance of personal contact between professionals and eligible families. While advertising plays a role, it alone was not seen as being conducive to engaging this group of parents.

Posters are a very middle class thing.

Local Authority Early Years Manager

3.11 A large proportion of parents of eligible 2 year olds were considered to be vulnerable and often lacking in confidence and self-esteem. Even if they had seen free ELC advertised, without the input of professionals, they would be unlikely to make the decision to use it and to take the necessary steps to access the application form and apply. In part this relates to simply lacking the confidence to engage with any type of service but it is particularly pertinent when the service involves being separated from their child, which many may feel uncomfortable about - at least initially. For these reasons, stakeholders repeatedly stressed the importance of using established relationships (e.g. health visitors, early years workers and social workers), where trust has been developed, to work with parents to inform them of the potential benefits and help to alleviate any concerns they may have. Some parents also required support with the application process and this was provided by the relevant professionals where possible, although it was noted that there were not always the necessary resources to help as much as they would like in this regard,

3.12 Two local authorities were using additional personal contacts to ensure that all parents who submitted applications did then use, and continue to use, the provision. In one authority, all applications were followed up with a phone call from the Early Years Manager. She would discuss the options for placements and talk parents through the next steps. She would then personally attend on the first day they brought their child to the ELC provider. They felt that this approach was effective as they had few who did not attend or who discontinued. In the other authority, those who submitted applications but did attend were followed up and those who did attend but then missed a number of sessions were sent a personalised leaflet with a photo of the child and a reminder of what they had enjoyed doing the last time they attended. They felt that minimising discontinuation was important and suggested that it would be useful for the data collection processes to include discontinuation rates.

Maintaining awareness among professionals

3.13 For the existing personal relationships between professionals and parents to be best utilised, close partnership working between professionals was considered crucial. Those with responsibility for the implementation and delivery of the provision were cognisant of the numerous demands on the professionals involved in promotion and the potential for this to be something that 'falls off their radars'. This, alongside the inevitable staff movement and turnover within teams, necessitated measures to ensure that all staff were advocates of free ELC and that momentum was kept up in terms of promotion. Such measures included: regular stakeholder meetings between all professional groups involved, visits to ELC providers and teams of professionals (e.g. health visiting teams, DWP offices, housing association staff), networking events, monthly email updates to health visitors with up to date information on where places were available, checks to ensure posters and leaflets are still on display (if something has been up for a long time, those maintaining notice boards etc. can think it is no longer relevant and remove it). These were the most time consuming aspects of promotion but were where the greatest benefits were felt to be.


3.14 In communicating with parents about free ELC, both via advertising materials and through personal contacts, stakeholders emphasised the need for the language used to be positive and non-stigmatising. For example, moving away from terms such as 'vulnerable twos' and focusing instead on the opportunities and benefits stemming from free ELC. Stressing the benefits in terms of early learning for the child was seen as particularly important.

What are the challenges in the promotion and implementation of ELC?

Knowing who is eligible for the provision

3.15 Overwhelmingly, the greatest challenge for professionals lay in identifying all of those eligible for the provision. They talked about the difficulties associated with delivering targeted provision without having a list of those in the target group. In particular, they felt it was challenging for health visitors (who have a heavy workload) to know where they should be directing their attention. If a family is eligible but not considered vulnerable enough to be having additional contacts with their health visitor, there is no easy way for a health visitor to identify them as being eligible and to approach them accordingly.

3.16 Stakeholders frequently suggested that the DWP should be able to produce lists of all families with 2 year olds who were in receipt of the appropriate benefits. If this information was shared with local authorities, they could ensure that they engaged with all eligible families. If the DWP cannot share this information, it was proposed that they could instead write to all those who are eligible. This would be a less desirable option, however, as it would not allow professionals to have the personal contact with families, which they feel is so important.

I mean the biggest way that we will be able to increase it any is to actually be able to identify who these families are that, at the moment, we're not aware that we're not targeting, because we think we are picking up most of the ones certainly that we're aware of…Well, I think they should get some agreement with DWP, that they can give us some information. That would be the first thing.

Head of Education and Children's Services

3.17 Related to DWP's unique position in having access to all eligible families, there was a sense that DWP staff could be doing more to promote ELC within job centres.

Reservations that the target group does not always match with need

3.18 In authorities where there was existing free ELC provision for 2 year olds, places had previously tended to be prioritised on the basis of need. There were concerns, particularly among professionals from these authorities, that the target group for free ELC did not always correlate with actual need. Some families who they felt were in need of free ELC were now not eligible, for example, if their income was just above the threshold. In these cases, they would often still provide places and fund them from local authority budgets.

Appropriateness of the provision for very vulnerable families

3.19 If a 2 year old is attending free ELC, this does not mean that they are not being supported in other ways. Participants pointed out that many of the most vulnerable families are instead using more intensive services where, for example, they attend small groups with their child and learn more about how to play and interact with them. For two key reasons, professionals would be reluctant to move children from these settings into free ELC. Firstly, the families' lives can be chaotic and they are often not at the point of being ready to attend mainstream services. The support they receive at these services helps to increase their confidence and prepare them for mainstream provision by the time their child is 3. Secondly, they felt that families were benefiting greatly from these services - where a parent attends a service with their child and is supported in parenting, there is a greater likelihood that the benefits will extend beyond the setting and into the home.

3.20 Currently, these services only tend to offer sessions once or twice a week. It was suggested that this model of provision could be expanded and be offered as a type of free ELC - families could attend for an increased number of hours (up to a maximum of the ELC entitlement) and could gradually begin to leave their child in the setting as both the staff and the parents felt that they were ready to do so.


3.21 On the whole, having the capacity to offer places to all those who wanted them was not a significant problem for authorities. They might not always have been able to offer parents their first choice but were generally able to offer a similar placement in close proximity to the first choice or the option to wait until a place became available in their first choice provider. However, for one largely rural authority, which had very little in the way of existing provision for 2 year olds, sourcing suitable facilities which were in walking distance for parents was a considerable and ongoing challenge.

Professionals' perspectives on the barriers faced by parents

3.22 Section 5 covers the barriers to free ELC among the parents who were interviewed as part of the research. However, professionals were also asked for their views on the barriers to parents - from their experience of promoting it. These barriers can be separated into those which are more practical in nature and those which relate to more personal or cultural reasons. It should be borne in mind that these are the experiences of a small stakeholders but they give an indication of some of the issues encountered by parents.

Practical reasons

3.23 The main practical barriers for parents which had been encountered by professionals were:

  • lack of awareness - professionals felt that, until they have lists of all those eligible, there will always be parents who are unaware of the provision.
  • transport - where places are not available within walking distance, transport issues can be a barrier. In more urban areas, buses might be available but the cost of bus fares can be off-putting. In rural areas, parents may have no means of travelling to a provider if they do not have a car.
  • a misunderstanding that the child will lose their place if family circumstances change - while not necessarily a barrier to uptake as such, there were parents who thought that, if they took a place and then went on to find work that took their income over the eligibility threshold, their child would no longer be eligible. This might not prevent them from taking a place but it might stop them from subsequently looking for work.

Personal or cultural reasons

3.24 Personal or cultural barriers identified by professionals included:

  • a lack of confidence to apply for, and attend, mainstream services
  • enjoying and benefiting from other, more supportive, services (as described in paragraph 3.19 above)
  • a feeling that their child is too young for ELC and/or that they do not want to be separated from their child for that length of time
  • a perceived lack of need for free ELC if at least one parent is not working
  • ELC not being the norm in the area - anecdotally, professionals had a sense of uptake being proportionately higher in more deprived areas and that this may be due to the fact it is more normalised.
  • stigma - there was a view among professionals that there will always be a stigma attached to any targeted service. However, this was considered to have been less of an issue since provision had been extended to incorporate working families on low incomes rather than being solely for families not in work. Using positive language in the promotion of the provision was also seen as important in overcoming any stigma.
  • cultural reasons - among some cultural groups (the Roma community, in particular, was mentioned), cultural norms can influence uptake. It can be more commonplace among some groups for children not to attend any ELC, even when they are 3 or 4.


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